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Rowing Drills for Skills

BY VOLKER NOLTE
PHOTO BY ED MORAN

As spring weather opens opportunities to get back on the water, it’s important to ease into the rowing swing.

One great way is drills, and I’m asked frequently about my favorites. My answer depends on the situation.

If I’m back on the water after several long and cold winter months, I prefer to start with some easy full-slide rowing, trying not to row too long at the catch and focusing on clean finishes.

After getting warmed up and gaining confidence in the boat, I begin a drill I call “stroke-rate changes.” These are short intervals of 10 strokes at rates between 24 and 30, with easy effort. This kind of rowing helps me sense the turning points within the stroke as well as the run of the boat.

The short intervals at higher speed are not exhausting and help me find the touch needed to execute long, solid strokes at lower stroke rates.

After I’m back on the water for some time, I’m ready for more challenging drills, mainly to improve my balance and the quick movements necessary for clean entries and releases.

Pause drills become my focus at this stage, chiefly because I can vary the drill so much–pausing every second, third, or fourth stroke, and at different stages of the recovery; executing additional movements during the pause, such as squaring and feathering; tapping the side of the boat or my head and air-stroking, etc. Finding good balance is essential to proper technique.

Next up are drills that help with oar handling. Wide grip with one or both hands, opening up the hands during recovery, pulling only with thumb and pointer finger are a few variations that can be done on their own and mixed with each other.

Changing stroke length and rhythm is very helpful at this stage. This drill again offers numerous variations. Not only can the length of the stroke be changed for a number of strokes but also the sequence of stroke lengths, such as arms-only, quarter, half, three-quarter, full-full, or half-half-full.

The final stage is combining different drills that develop discrete skills, which requires enormous focus. For example: first stroke–pause drill; second stroke–wide grip; third stroke–half slide, followed by a normal rowing stroke. Repeat this sequence without stopping and you’ll see that it becomes difficult to perform the strokes cleanly and fluently without getting confused.

A drill I use infrequently and with care is “part-crew rowing,” which can be beneficial for less experienced rowers as they seek to get back in the swing. Because of low temperatures this time of year, it’s important that athletes not get cold, especially when they’re sweaty and conditions are windy. Later in the season, when temperatures warm and athletes can benefit from strength exercises, using the slow and heavy part-crew rowing drill becomes more advantageous.

It’s important to present athletes with a variety of exercises to keep them engaged and excited. Therefore, limit the number of strokes for each drill. It’s more important to retain the focus of the athletes and expose them to a variety of challenging situations to widen the experience of how the crew and the boat react.

Rowers need to understand the connection to the part of the stroke that the drill aims to improve, and coaches need to alert athletes when they transfer the drill into their normal rowing stroke.

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